When Charlene Unitan found out in February that she had breast cancer and needed surgery followed by chemotherapy, the support she received from her workplace helped her dig her way through the toughest of tough times.
Her boss told her to take care of herself first. And even though Unitan did not have much sick leave in the bank, her leave time kept growing as co-workers anonymously donated their own.
The logistics taken care of, she now relies on the kind words from her boss and co-workers, some of whom she was not close to before her illness, to perk her up during hard times. "I get e-mails from my boss and co-workers telling me, 'I'm keeping you in my prayers,' " said Unitan, an attorney in the general counsel's office at the Department of Health and Human Services. "I'm letting every religion pray for me. I don't care who it is."
The words cheer her as she works from home, fighting her fuzzy "chemo brain" and the fatigue she feels throughout her treatment. "There have been times I've been really down, thinking, 'How am I going to feel halfway human again?' " she said. Then she receives an e-mail from a co-worker or a supervisor telling her to keep at it, or that they are thinking of her. That's when she thinks, "Oh yeah, I can do this," she said. "It's very uplifting."
Many organizations provide employee assistance programs designed to guide workers through difficult times. But it's often the more incidental sign of caring and concern from a co-worker or boss that helps people get through the rough times.
"Workplaces, in a way, are like the new neighborhood," said Dory Hollander, a workplace psychologist and coach. So when co-workers know something's not going well in their cube-mate's life, "it means a tremendous amount, not only in the sense of touching them, but that they're a part of something or that they're appreciated. . . . If you don't have control over a situation, one of the best things that can help buoy your spirits and restore some sense of equilibrium is feeling connected and being part of a community."
Offices need to be supportive because everybody goes through hardships. And most people need that support at work as well as outside, said Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of "How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say: The Right Words for Difficult Times."
Kaplan knows about difficult times, and she said that if it hadn't been for a supportive workplace, she and her husband would have had an even more difficult time getting through them. They lost two babies to a heart defect in one year. Her husband worked for Fairfax County, and the workers advanced him sick leave, came to the funerals, brought food and sent plants, even though he had been there for only three months. He went on to work there for 18 years. "I cannot tell you what a difference it made," Kaplan said.
But there are times, she said, when office mates can make a problem worse. Kaplan heard about a woman whose baby died seven months into her pregnancy. The woman called her supervisor and asked him to e-mail her co-workers so no one would question her when she returned to work. The supervisor never sent the e-mail. When the woman returned, everyone asked her where she had been. After they heard the news, they were too afraid to approach her. It made an unthinkably hard situation even worse.
"Many times, when someone has experienced loss and you send them a card or made a donation, you think, 'I did my job,' " Kaplan said. "But that person is going to grieve for a long time. Stop and say, 'How are you doing?' . . . It's meaningful to know their loved one and they are not forgotten."
Hollander said one mistake managers often make is to tell people to take time off from work. That isn't always helpful, she said. "Sometimes that structure and routine and having people treat you as someone who can produce something real or tangible sort of keeps people sane in very tough times."
When Andrea Pedolsky's life partner was diagnosed with liver and stomach cancer a decade ago, she approached her boss to say that she wasn't going to ask for time off but that she would like to work from the hospital sometimes. Her boss gave her permission to do what she felt she had to do. "I'm generally someone who, if I feel lousy, I keep working because I feel better distracted," said Pedolsky, then a book editor and now an agent with Altair Literary Agency in the District. She even worked during the last two weeks of her partner's life. "I wasn't escaping from him, but it kept me centered."
Meanwhile, her co-workers visited and let her cry. Although she wasn't married to her partner, she was given spousal leave.
When she returned, people came into her office and just listened, making the transition a little easier.
"I realized . . . that having people who would encourage me to talk if I wanted to, and were there to listen, was really important," she said. "It would just be a general conversation, and if I wanted to talk about what was going on, I could."
Even those who face minor setbacks need a little help from their friends. When Stephanie Barclay suffered a bicycle accident a couple of years ago, she couldn't use one arm for a while. Her co-workers drove her to work at the San Francisco office of the California attorney general, where she worked at the time as a lawyer.
Although it was a difficult time for her, "I know other people who went through worse things," she said.
The time on the sick side of life opened her eyes a bit. Like when one of her co-workers later hurt her back. Barclay went to the co-worker's house and did her laundry.
"It made me more sensitive to other people in that situation. Always when something happens to you, you become more sensitive to others' difficulties."
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